LIU XIA, the widow of China’s most renowned dissident of the 21st century, Liu Xiaobo, had been facing the grim prospect of commemorating the death a year ago of her husband while herself still suffering de facto house arrest in Beijing. But on the morning of July 10th, three days before the anniversary, the authorities allowed Ms Liu to board a Finnair flight to Helsinki for a connection to Berlin, where she has friends. Germany had taken the lead among the many Western countries that had been pressing for her release. China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, happened to be visiting Germany when news broke of Ms Liu’s long-awaited freedom.
Her confinement began in 2010, days after Ms Liu’s husband, then a year into an 11-year sentence for subversion, won the Nobel peace prize. Though never formally charged with any crime herself, she was prevented by security agents from leaving their apartment in Beijing and allowed only limited access to telephone or internet services. A rare exception was when she was allowed to be with her husband as he lay dying of liver cancer, under police guard, in a hospital in the north-eastern city of Shenyang. In December the authorities allowed the widow to visit her younger brother. In February they did so again, for the lunar new-year holiday, and on other occasions she was allowed to venture outside with a police escort to buy groceries. But in April, during the Qing Ming festival when Chinese people traditionally honour the dead, she had to mourn privately at home.
Courts slap down the Trump administration’s immigration policies
The EU digests Britain’s new Brexit plan
A cave rescue in Thailand shows Britain’s skill at spelunking
Are today’s young football stars worse than those before them?
Thanks to Boris Johnson, a farcical west-Balkan summit in London
Deliverance for Thailand’s trapped footballers
Officials said Ms Liu, 57, was allowed to go abroad to seek medical treatment. This is often the reason they give for letting prisoners of conscience and other such detainees leave the country. Sometimes it is merely a face-saving excuse for freeing someone whose release could help China’s diplomatic efforts (in this case probably with Germany, which China wants as an ally in its battle with America over trade). But Hu Jia, another prominent dissident in Beijing, says Ms Liu’s medical needs are very real. He says she has been suffering badly from stress and depression. In April a Berlin-based friend of Ms Liu released a recording of his phone call with her in which she sobbed and spoke of wanting to die. She was, the friend wrote then, approaching “the brink of mental collapse”.
It was remarkable that the authorities devoted so much effort for so long to silencing Ms Liu—journalists who tried to visit her were routinely turned away. She was not an activist herself, but an artist, photographer and poet. It was her husband who had angered the government with his long history of criticising the Communist Party’s rule. He was first jailed after being labelled a “black hand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A subsequent incarceration was for organising the distribution of Charter 08, a manifesto that called on the Communist Party to respect human rights and allow democratic elections. His death was the first in custody of a Nobel peace-prize winner since that of an anti-Nazi dissident in 1938.
Ms Liu’s release may remove an irritant in China’s relationship with Germany, but it will do nothing to convince it or other Western countries that China is easing up in its treatment of dissidents. Ms Liu’s release came a day after the anniversary of what is known in China as the “709” crackdown of 2015 during which hundreds of civil-rights lawyers and other activists were rounded up. Many remain in custody.
Among those who have been freed, more than a dozen say they have had their legal licences revoked on murky grounds. Others say family members, including children, have suffered police harassment.
Such suffering, merely for having family connections with a dissident, may continue to plague Liu’s family. His widow leaves behind two brothers in Beijing. The younger one, Liu Hui, has been repeatedly jailed on fraud charges in recent years. Activists believe the real reason for his punishment has been his ties with her. According to Hu Jia, the brother should not hold out hope of obtaining his own one-way air ticket. His lot, says Mr Hu, is to remain in China as a hostage, to ensure that Ms Liu minds her tongue in exile.